Three voices called out at different intervals, each carrying their own tone of voice. One was helpless, one was angry, and the other was scolding. Anna marched into the bathroom where her sons were engaged in a tussle. The eldest, having ten years advantage of strength, held the younger upside down by his ankles, trying to fit his head in the toilet.
"Mario, put your brother down and leave him alone!"
"Mama, he ate my homework!"
"Did not!" protested a freckle-faced boy, his mouth full of paper.
"He did too! It took me two hours to finish those equations!"
"Well, he threw my socks out the window!"
"I did not!"
"Tell him to put me down!" Luigi grasped the seat of the toilet, pushing himself away from the waters below.
"Oh, I'll put you down all right. Put you down in the sewers where you belong, you little rat!"
"Both of you, stop it!" Anna screamed loudly and stomped her foot.
The brothers were equally startled to hear their mother so forceful and angry. Mario almost dropped his brother and the paper fell out of Luigi's open mouth.
"Now," Anna breathed deeply, trying to regain control. "I want both of you to leave each other alone for the rest of the night…do you think you can do that?"
"…Sure," mumbled Mario as he righted his brother.
"Okay," whispered Luigi.
"Good," sighed Anna. "I want you two on your best behavior tonight…your father is picking me up right after work and we are going out."
"Out? Where?" Mario and Luigi demanded simultaneously. They actually took the time to notice her apparel was dressed for something nice.
"Just for dinner. It's legal to do that, you know."
"Great. I have to stay here with him?"
"Mario, it's just for a couple of hours. We'll be back around midnight."
"You might as well chain us together so I can always look after him."
"Mario, don't take that tone."
"Fine," he growled. "Go have your dinner while this rat of a brother you gave me ruins my life." Exasperated, Mario threw up his hands and slammed his door behind him. Tears sprang to Luigi's eyes as he turned and faced Anna.
"Mama, I don't want you to go."
"Oh, baby it's not forever. Just for a couple of hours. You'll be fine with Mario."
"But what if the pipe-people eat me?"
"The pipe-peo-….honestly, Mario! Stop telling your brother stories!" The door below opened, and from upstairs, Luigi could see it was his father.
"Come on, Anna. We have a reservation."
"Coming, dear. Now Luigi. You be good and stay out of Mario's way. Just don't do anything to bother him, all right?" She kissed the top of his head briefly and hurried down the steps. "Go to bed when you're supposed to…no candy corn!"
"All right, mama." The door closed behind them, and Luigi watched their shadows leave the front step. Mario's door opened and he charged past his brother downstairs and into the kitchen. Luigi followed him slowly.
"I don't have a good feeling about this, Mario."
"What do you know? You're six."
"Well, I still don't like it."
Mario shrugged, chewing on some bread. "Want a sandwich, Weege?"
A long pause, then Luigi exploded into a loud. "Pepperoni and cheese pizza!"
"Bird brain. You don't put pepperoni and cheese on a sandwich."
"Pepperoni and cheese! Pepperoni and cheese!" Luigi chanted.
"Fine fine! But all we have is American cheese and salami."
Luigi giggled excitedly to himself, anticipating his dinner. "Yum!"
"You are so weird."
Mario's bedroom door opened a crack, and a sliver of light fell on his bedsheets. Luigi tiptoed into his room, so quietly that all could be heard were the raindrops on the window. He crept to Mario's bed, put a hand on his shoulder and gently shook him.
"Mario." His voice trembled a little. "Mario, wake up."
"Mmm…" His older brother rolled over and faced him. "Whutymizit?"
Luigi glanced at the clock helplessly. "…it's late."
Mario picked up his alarm and stared. "No, it's early. Go back to bed."
"No, Mario don't go to sleep." Luigi's voice rose on the last word, so Mario sat up and started paying attention. His little brother's eyes were tearful and his lower lip trembled. Mario sighed. "All right. Hop in."
Luigi climbed into his bed and scooted as close as he could to Mario, squeezing the latter between himself and the wall.
"What's keeping you up?"
A pause, then Luigi shrugged.
"What…your 'bad' feeling?"
"Must be the pipe-people, then."
"Mario…" Luigi whined pitifully.
"I warned you not to take that bath, tonight. Now they can smell you all over the bath-water…"
"They loooove the smell of little Brooklyn boys!" Mario grinned widely, enjoying the joke. "Next time you use the tub, they'll suck you down with them, like this." Mario made a fish face and crossed his eyes, hoping to make his brother laugh. Instead he received a frightened sobbing cry.
"Awe, come on, Weege. You know I make that stuff up."
"But…but what if it's true?"
"But what if it is?" Luigi pressed, sniffling.
"Then…then I won't let them get you. I'll take the plunger from the cabinet and swing it left and right until they all get sucked back down into the tub. Then I'll have dad duct tape the drain so they can't come back."
"Really?" Luigi stared at him with his big brown eyes, in awe of his brother as if he were a better hero than Superman.
"Of course I would. I wouldn't want them to hog a little rat like you all to themselves." Mario tickled his brother until he could hardly breathe. Luigi finally managed to giggle out "stop!" at the same time the phone rang. Mario didn't hear it until it was almost too late. He raced to the kitchen, wondering who would call at such an hour.
"Hello? Yes, who is this? Oh…" Mario's eyes searched the floor in confusion. "…why would something happen to them? …Yeah, I know it's raining!" He tone was impatient and sarcastic; he hoped it covered the fear in his voice. He glanced at the clock. It was 1:32. He tensely waited and listened to the voice on the other line. Then his face grew pale. "What." His flat voice made the word sound like a statement more than a question. "What-no…no you've got it all wrong. No, they said they'd be home at 12. They said…Luigi! Go wake up mama and dad!" A shadow upstairs willingly obeyed and walked to his parent's room. "No, I didn't hear them come home. That doesn't mean they're not home…I don't care if they are in the hospital. Anyone could look like them…yeah, well, maybe you need some glasses, pal!"
"What?" he snapped, looking upstairs. His brother stared at him, frightened again.
"They're not here."
A terse pause, then Mario slammed the phone back on the hook and ran to open the front door. Cars parked along the sidewalk…but none of them were theirs.
"Did mama and dad come home yet?"
"N-no, Weege. Not yet. Come on, we're gonna call…" Who to call? The restaurant? No, they'd be closed. The hospital? More bad news. Come on, Mario. Think rationally.
"We're gonna call a cab."
"Where are we going?"
"To find mom and dad."
A half hour later, Mario pushed through the doors of the hospital clumsily while carrying his brother wrapped in a quilt. He ran to the front desk and caught his breath.
"Where can I find…Anna and Martin Mario?"
The woman behind the desk seemed taken back, but judged from the looks of them that they were in the wrong place. She pointed with a long finger and told them, "Try the emergency room."
Mario was gone in a flash down the hall, his brother in tow. He slammed through the double doors and glanced around quickly, desperately searching for a doctor. Finally, someone in white.
"Can you help me find Anna and Martin Mario?"
The man stopped and glanced behind him, motioning towards a nurse. "Jan. Help these boys find Anna and Martin."
"What were their last names?"
"Mario," growled Mario through his teeth, utterly shocked by the lack of interest in the doctors thus far. The nurse found a chart and they followed her through the bustle of the ER. Sick and injured, young and old, lay in beds either alone or surrounded by family. Luigi buried his head in Mario's neck and covered his ears, an action he usually performed when something frightened him.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, the nurse came to a glass room, one of few in the hospital. Mario's breath suddenly came shortly; doors opened, doctors surrounding a bed…one of them noticed Mario.
"Should you be here, son?"
"Yeah, you're the ones that called me to come here! And stop calling me son!"
"All right, all right, just calm down. We just want to know if you're Mario Mario."
"…Yeah." Mario saw his mother's face through a gap in the white coats and uniforms. He fell silent and stepped forward. "She okay?"
"They got hit on the driver's side…she has a broken hip and some nasty cuts-"
"Where is my father?" he demanded, jaw clenched at their impertinence to avoid his questions.
One man approached him. "Your…your dad was driving. He didn't make it…I'm sorry."
Mario's head was swimming. He thought we might have passed out if Luigi hadn't stirred, removing his hands from his ears. Mario quickly walked back to the door, turning so Luigi couldn't see his mama. They sat down in a small couch together outside the room.
"Mario, what's going on? Where's mama and dad?"
For a second, Mario couldn't answer him. He was the older brother, he was supposed to be able to answer everything. Sixteen years old, and he was supposed to know everything. Sixteen years old…and his father is dead from a car accident.
"She's…she's hurt, Weege."
"What about dad?"
Mario's eyes misted over; he didn't want to answer his brother. But he would rather tell him than the creep doctors staring down at his mother.
"Gone where?" asked Luigi, lip trembling again.
Mario hugged him tightly, feeling himself shaking. "He's gone…to heaven."
Luigi began to cry. "When is he coming back?"
"That's the thing Weege." Mario stared into the hallway, into thin air as he answered flatly. "Once you get to heaven, you can't leave."
"I want mama! I want mama!"
Mario felt like screaming and shaking the sobbing child, "I want mama, too! But I doubt she'll make it either!" He took a deep breath and whispered in his ear. "I know, Luigi. I know." A nurse came out of the room and Luigi covered his ears, hiding his face again. Mario glanced at her. "What now?"
"It's your mother." Mario didn't even notice the doctors in the room behind them…didn't hear their frantic orders or see their actions. Now it was too late; he didn't notice them until they began leaving the room, faces downcast. Mario didn't dare to ask. He only shook his head.
"No. No, no no…" Tears sprang to his eyes and he clung more tightly to Luigi. "No…"
"Mario, wake up!"
"Huh?" Mario sat up in bed, glancing left and right. His cramped room at their small apartment, his younger brother staring down at him.
"You all right, bro?"
"Uh…yeah." He ran a hand down his face and through his mustache, embarrassed. "Yeah, fine."
Luigi stood by uncomfortably, then finally spoke softly. "I miss 'em too."
"You barely knew them," Mario said without thinking. Insulted and hurt, Luigi got off the bed and started for the door. "Luigi!" Too late; he had already slammed the door behind him. Mario cringed at the sound, reminding himself to watch what he said.
He still felt that it was true, though. Mario had lived with his parents longer than his brother did…why should he care that they were gone? He had less memories…he had less to miss. Luigi should feel grateful.
Mario only wished to remove his feeling of guilt that the last things he told his mother were angry, hurtful words referring to the "rat" his mother gave him. Since her death twelve years ago, Mario promised to himself to treat his brother more like a gift than a curse. Maybe it was time he lived up to that promise again.